Anyone who knows Choi Byung-So can now see that his way of working is generated from his repetitive action of drawing lines with a ballpoint pen and pencil on mass-produced items such as newspaper, small wrapping paper or empty paper box. Choi constantly continues drawing lines until black graphite cover the entire surface, sometimes torn and cracked by repeated action of drawing, and finally he stops when material reaches its physical limit. Some say that his work, which started in the early 1970s and continues for almost 50 years, is never simplified or shortened, and repeats endlessly, is described as the asceticism of a monk, that is, an act of making oneself suffer physically. In addition, Choi Byung-So, as a young man his early 30s in 1970s, began to erase newspaper articles by over-painting them with a ball-point pen as if he was expressing anger, in the distorted and manipulated media of the times, when the media was controlled and expression and communication were suppressed in Korea under the military regime. Some believe that it is how he began to produce the newspaper work, erasing printed information and actuality until it transform into something completely different phenomenon. Even though Choi has created a consistent oeuvre based on a unique treatment of newspaper, it doesn’t mean that he only focused on the newspaper work.
He showed numerous avant-garde style experimental art works before and during his representative newspaper work in some exhibitions such as 1974 <Korean Experimental Artists Exhibition> and the 1974-78 <Daegu Contemporary Art Festival> in which Choi was one of the most important key members. In his performances, for instance, once he chopped a fish up at an elegant gallery in a midsummer and left only the stinky chopping board there as a happening; in the city library museum of Daegu, he just spontaneously took chairs on the site and arranged individually or in a group, and then each area was marked with tape, and the seats without chairs were marked with tape only as conceptual installation work, etc. These experimental art works reveal that a considerable aspect of his art, including his current work, is the continuous questioning about the dual structure of “existence and absence”, “imaginary and real”, “creation and elimination”, “context and surface” and so on.
There are many reasons why Choi Byung-so chose newspaper as the main material for his work. As he formulates: “At that time, it was the most inexpensive and the easiest access material that suites me best.” the artist says without embellishment. The first impression when you encounter Choi's oeuvre is as it would be a reminiscent of minerals, like hard crystals created by natural energy under heat and pressure, rather than artificially created objects. Only after long observation, can we slowly discover significant elements of their sensual and material entities, which guide us on the path of the authentic perception of the artistically developed black surface.
It is none other than the traces of the artist's joyful hand movements, where parallel lines that repeat and move in various directions intersect and accumulate like an infinite melody riding in a free rhythm. At that moment, the seemingly objective, natural texture of the black surfaces is suddenly transforming into something vital, sensual, even expressive drawing. The surface covered with black lines on the newspaper might look the same at first glance, but just as yesterday and today can never be the same in any given time, each piece of newspaper will be given a new meaning through the artist's labor process, through human actions in every moment of life that can never be repeated. Human labor and time, which are endlessly repeated by the creative will of the artist, are to give the unique value and meaning to the daily mass production like newspapers which is seemingly insignificant and provisory.
The repetitive artistic elaboration of the surface of the newspaper makes the temporary things sustainable timeless.
While preparing for the third solo exhibition of Choi Byung-So at Wooson Gallery in 2022, following 2015 and 2018, I had the opportunity to have many conversations with the artist, and the more conversations I had with him, the more I thought that his work, which dislikes virtuosity and pretentiousness, is very similar to the artist himself. I once asked the artist if it would be difficult for him to do such a work of asceticism for the rest of his life. He answered, “My work is neither hard work nor mortification, and there is always a new pleasure every time I do a new work. I appreciate the beauty of working process that the moments when the paper is torn half-intentionally or half-accidentally depending on the action of physical forces is extremely intriguing. It probably wouldn’t have lasted if it wasn’t enjoyable.” said Choi Byung-So.
I sometimes think of conversations I had with him: “.... when I was at the age of seven, I went through the Korean War and had witnessed so many death people on the road while fleeing to the city where my aunt was living, forgetting hunger and fear, I just walked and walked.... when I was in elementary school, we didn't have money to buy notebooks, so I folded newspapers and carried them in my pocket .... in middle school, newspapers were much more interesting than books, so I read more newspapers instead of books and Han Ha-un's poem "Blue Bird" that I read in the Dogseosinmun (*The Reading Newspaper) at that time still resonates in my heart . ....
when I was studying painting at Chung-Ang University, I did a boarding house in Seoul, however, the guy living in the front room played classical music too loudly in the middle of the night, so we fought often but in the end, I myself fell in love with classical music and went to “Renaissance Dabang (Classical Music Room&Cafe)” more often than University. ....”
Even now, almost 80 years old, Choi Byung-so says that he misses his grandmother so much that he jumps off the bus when he sees an old lady who looks like his grandmother. The reason I share this personal story of an artist is not because these anecdotes help to understand his work. The newspaper work of Choi is not irrelevant to the time factor which is inevitably connected with the function of the journals, that involves the information of the given moment of its production. However, I wanted to say that in none of the conversations I had with him, I could find anything resentment or frustration towards the world in which he was born.
Looking back, I also remember that I myself understood Choi Byung-so's work in a simple way based on formal explanations and information tailored to the general framework. However, if we look at Choi Byung-so’s work based on such interpretation or criticism, we might miss the true value of his work, which I deeply felt while preparing this exhibition. I hope this exhibition will guide the audience on a new path to approach Choi Byung-so’s oeuvre.
Choi Byung-so, as a human being and an artist, tells us, through his works, with a beautiful simplicity and self-evidence: “I was here.”
Text © 2022, Lee Eunmi
*The Reading Newspaper (The Dogseosinmun) : A weekly newspaper specializing in academic, culture, art, and publication information, it was founded in 1970.